While we’ve looked at puppets in both film and television, here we’re going to look at puppets in their wider content in popular culture, this time encompassing radio We’re going to begin all the way back to the 1930s when new forms of media enabled America’s most famous puppets and puppeteers to tap into wider audiences. New techniques were available that matched the immediacy afforded by the camera and microphone. Edgar Bergen and puppet Charlie McCarthy made their way into American homes through radio broadcasts. George Pal was responsible for a ground-breaking new system of stop-motion puppetry on film. And Jim Henson’s fascination with television technology led to his own techniques- he allowed his characters to free themselves from the traditional puppet stage and use his own experiments to animate them with the focus of the TV monitor and TV camera. This achieved a higher level of intimacy.
Ventriloquist puppets can take any one of a number of different forms, such as a stuffed creature or a hand puppet. The type we’re most familiar with, of course, is a large doll. Each of these forms of puppet engages in a dialogue with the puppeteer, who make the puppet’s side of the conversation appear as though it is coming directly out of the puppet’s mouth. This is known as “throwing one’s voice”.
Edgar Bergen and his puppet friend Charlie McCarthy made their first radio appearance in 1922. They became radio sensations; such was the popularity of this new form of entertainment. McCarthy started as a newsboy but later evolved into a bon vivant, inspired by Esquire magazine’s cartoon symbol Esky. Bergen was essentially the straight man while McCarthy was known for his antics. They were popular with audiences of all ages, thanks to some great marketing, which saw them being all over commercial products.
Actor-puppeteer Jay Johnson created Bob Campbell for TV comedy Soap, a send-up of soapy-style narratives. Bob was the half-brother of characters played by Billy Crystal and Johnson himself. His purpose was often to act as the alter-ego of Johnson, providing outrageous opinions on a number of characters and situations. Soap was a very controversial show for its era, dealing with such topics as organised crime, sexuality, religion, and race.
Marionettes are controlled above the stage using strings or wires typically attached on top of a bar, and is often referred to as an aeroplane control, due to its shape. The bar is usually operated by a puppeteer hidden from view. The term, which comes from France, dates back to around the beginning of the 17th century. It translates to “little Mary”, to recognise the Virgin Mary, who was one of the first-ever figures represented as a stringed puppet in plays revolving around church morality.
The Howdy Doody Show was the most popular children’s show on television from 1947-1960. The character was first performed by his creator, “Buffalo” Bob Smith on radio. It wasn’t until later that Frank Paris turned him into a TV puppet. Paris departed the show in 1948 as the result of a conflict over merchandising rights. A new Howdy Doody was created by Velma Dawson. Using parts from the Dawson puppet, Margo and Rufus Rose built the marionette.